This week, a Europe-wide YouGov survey showed Britons are the most enthusiastic about reductions in their working time, with 63% saying they’d support a move to a four-day week.
It’s possible this enthusiasm for sloping off early is driven by the desire to get back home and devote more time to boggling at the endless spiralling vortex of national infamy that is Brexit – which, for those connoisseurs of the Peter principle, really has been the gift that keeps on giving, every day offering new and thrilling twists on the theme of not only Theresa May’s but the entire Conservative party’s complete lack of suitability for government. But more likely is that we are collectively deeply and seriously unhappy about work, and would like – if we can – to do rather less of it.
Official surveys make the situation clear. Unemployment, we know, is at a 40-year low. Meanwhile, underemployment has attracted significant attention since the 2008 crisis, the numbers of people reporting they would like more hours of work rising sharply as zero-hours contracts and dubious forms of agency and contract work have proliferated. Currently, 7.7% of working age adults, just under 3.2m people, say they would like to work more hours – still high, but down from its 2014 peak of 3.9m.
Overemployment, however, is rarely reported on. It refers to those people saying they would like to work less, if they could. The figures are buried away on the Office for National Statistics website. Yet what they show is startling: 10.1m people – almost one in three people in work – would work fewer hours if they could. Extraordinarily, 3.3m of them would take fewer hours even with a loss in pay.
Employment, on the official figures, is at its highest level for two generations. But the actual experience of work is very obviously not a happy one for great numbers of us – and why would it be?
For all the government triumphalism about wage rises in the last few months, allowing for inflation average wages and salaries are still below their levels of a decade ago – a slump in living standards without parallel in modern British history. And the average disguises enormous variation: between April 2017 and April 2018 (the most recent data available) there has been “barely any” pay increases for the poorest 90% in the last year, whilst the top 0.1% have seen rises of 5.9%.
Set against this actual experience of work – low wages, insecurity, excessive hours – government boosterism of the official statistics starts to take on a Soviet-style unreality. UK jobs production figures have surpassed all records, comrades! Glory to the capitalist motherland!
It’s quite obvious, at least since 2008, that our glorious flexible labour market has created incentives for companies to substitute the difficult business of investing in new technology, equipment and training for the easier option of taking on more cheap, expendable labour. The impact on productivity – the efficiency with which an economy can produce – has been dramatic, Britain lagging far behind comparable countries. On average, in Britain it takes about five days’ work to produce the same as four days’ work in the US, Germany or France. Wages have fallen behind, conditions have worsened, productivity growth has crumbled. It’s back in the USSR again with an old Soviet joke: you pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.
We can do better than this. We need greater attention paid to the statistics that say something about people’s lives – including the distribution of income, not just its average level. But we also need to think about the distribution of work, since it’s clear there’s a deep, untapped dissatisfaction with what we’re spending our eight hours a day doing, week in, week out – and for at least one in three of us, seriously wishing we could do rather less of it.
Part of Labour’s existing programme, centred on the Alternative Models of Ownership document, begins to address that, as do the proposed changes to corporate governance. The aim is to shift the balance of power back towards workers, giving those in work meaningful control over their lives at work, whether through workplace democracy or worker ownership.
But clearly there are more fundamental issues to get into, and they’re not always easy ones for the left to get its collective head around. The challenge ahead – given what we know are the possibilities for technological change, and what we know are the responsibilities climate change imposes on us – is to think about how we can begin to address this great untapped desire for control over how and, ultimately, for what purpose we work. Ownership of – and democracy in – workplaces are one part of that.
But so, too, is greater choice over the when of working time. We know the benefits of reductions in working time, whether on the flint-hearted economists’ measure of productivity, or on the normal functioning human value of more time spent with family. It’ll be a hard argument – quite reasonably, people will want to see that this can work in practice. But making the four-day week – with no loss of pay – the new norm would be a fine target to set for a future government.